Intercepting mobile communications: A cogent case for truth-seeking and slow news?

Even if most of us are powerless to completely evade it completely, the pitfalls of mobile phone intercepts are well documented and known. However, two articles recently published on the web can be read as somewhat justifying the use of material thus collected for truth seeking after an act of terrorism. Whether such use justifies ab initio the clandestine harvesting of voice and data from consumers is a debatable point, particularly in regimes significantly less democratic than the US and India.

England’s Guardian newspaper reports on its blog an experiment by Wikileaks to place on public record more than 500,000 intercepted pager messages, many from US officials, at the time of the World Trade Centre attacks in New York on 9th September 2001.

The experiment by whistleblowing website Wikileaks includes pager messages sent on the day by officials in the Pentagon, the New York police and witnesses to the collapse of the twin towers. Wikileaks said the messages would show a “completely objective record of the defining moment of our time”.

Emphasis mine. In a similar vein, the Lede of the New York Times reports almost a year after the horrific terrorist attacks in Mumbai that,

… Channel 4 News in Britain had obtained and broadcast excerpts from those intercepted phone calls, between the attackers and people apparently directing them. This audio was also used in a documentary produced by Channel 4 and HBO, which was broadcast last summer in Britain is airing in the United States this week.

The Channel 4 video is chilling, demonstrating clearly how mobile phone communications were central to the terrorist attacks.

Distracted by wide screen monitors?

Implications for advocacy against mobile phone and communications monitoring
We know that the terrorists in Mumbai used Blackberry’s to communicate with home base and monitor news reports. Does this knowledge justify the Indian government’s threat to hack into Blackberry communications a few months before the attacks last year?

Both examples above point to extremely sophisticated, wide ranging signals and communications intelligence regimes in both countries, able to access the communications of specific mobile devices and numbers post facto. As noted in the Lede,

Wikileaks would not reveal the source for the leak, but hinted: “It is clear that the information comes from an organisation which has been intercepting and archiving US national telecommunciations since prior to 9/11.

This strongly suggests that both data and voice of a wide range of numbers (maybe even of all consumers?) are being recorded either by the telcos themselves and / or by government intelligence agencies.

Given the increasing sophisticated and ubiquity of signals and communications intelligence, it is reasonable to expect that every terrorist act today gives cause for more encroachment into private communications. For example, this is clear even in the United Kingdom, when in 2008 it was brought to light that it was the intention of the British Government to create a database to record every phone call, e-mail and time spent on the internet by all citizens.

A common argument will be that these measures are necessary to protect the public in a context where terrorism relies on the same public infrastructure and communications channels to plans its attacks as ordinary citizens.

Will then a mark of democracy in the future be the open knowledge and contestation of these signals and communication intelligence regimes in the media by civil society, such as we find in the UK and US? If not, how can we discern between the ostensibly pro bono publico monitoring of communications in more robust democracies and the more sinister, parochial monitoring of communications in regimes like Iran, Saudi Arabia and China?

A case for slow-news?
Finally, I go back to the justification of Wikileaks to publish the records of pager messages sent after the World Trade Centre attacks. What it refers to as an objective record is actually a plethora of hugely subjective, partial and inaccurate messages. Any real time analysis of these messages could not have in any meaningful way contributed to situational awareness or policy decisions. As the Guardian notes, the messages “…show how panic and rumour began to spread on the day, and are likely to fuel conspiracy theories about the attacks.”

Dan Gillmor, using the more recent example of the shootings in America’s Fort Hood, writes about the need for a ‘slow news’ movement. As he notes,

I rely in large part on gut instincts when I make big decisions, but my gut only gives me good advice when I’ve immersed myself in the facts about things that are important. This applies, more than ever, to news, where we need to be skeptical of just about everything we read, listen to and watch, though not equally skeptical. A corollary to that is increasingly clear: to wait a bit, for evidence that is persuasive, before deciding what’s true and what’s not.

It comes down to this: The faster the news accelerates, the slower I’m inclined to believe anything I hear — and the harder I look for the coverage that pulls together the most facts with the most clarity about what’s known and what’s speculation. Call it slow news. Call it critical thinking. Call it anything you want. Give some thought to adopting it for at least some of your media consumption, and creation.

Dan’s full blog post, which refers to the work of Ethan Zuckerman as well, is linked to national security, in that policy decisions to counter terrorism taken on the basis of communications intelligence may be based on information that’s inaccurate, partial and in some cases, deliberately misleading. This is especially the case in a context where with a shocked and enraged citizenry, a government is forced to act upon, and rate more highly, intelligence it knows is suspect. There is also the flip side, where in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack known to have been coordinated using public telecoms infrastructure and channels, an unscrupulous government can more easily justify and embed communications monitoring for its own ends.

As Dan notes, the answer could lie in media literacy. But media literacy is pegged to the freedom of expression, sufficient literacy, education and access to alternative media. Fabrice Florin’s offers one compelling model of news reporting that fosters critical appreciation of online content. There are others. Coupled with an education in critical thinking, they can be a solid defense against mobs and riots instigated by disinformation, misinformation and misguided government policies that exacerbate conflict and act as a force-multiplier to terrorism.

Deciding which mobile phone to bug and how: The incredible flip side of the growth of mobiles

I use the word incredible in the sense of difficult to believe or extraordinary.

In one of the most revealing and interesting articles I’ve read in a while, the London Review of Books looks into the world of mobile phone surveillance. It begins with the example of in the UK, a freely available service (one of many as a quick Google search reveals) that can be used to track the movements of a mobile phone. A related BBC report by Click Online presenter Spencer Kelly notes how easy it is to circumvent the security protocol associated with a phone that is to be tracked.

While I’ve repeatedly mentioned on this blog that social networking linked to proximity thresholds on mobiles could be a killer app in densely populated areas (megacities), the potential of using the same technology to monitor movements and track people is no longer the domain of science fiction or films like Enemy of the State.

But what’s interesting about the LRB article is not this. It is highlighting the Intelligence Support Systems industry (ISS) industry, growing by leaps and bounds, and its links with and interest in the mobile phone and telecoms companies. And the question is poses is a fascinating one,

…identify targets for LI (that’s ‘lawful intercept’) in the first place: it’s a cinch to bug someone, but how do you help a law enforcement agency decide who to bug?

The way ISS companies go about doing this is worth quoting in full,

To help answer that question, companies like ThorpeGlen (and VASTech and Kommlabs and Aqsacom) sell systems that carry out ‘passive probing’, analysing vast quantities of communications data to detect subjects of potential interest to security services, thereby doing their expensive legwork for them. ThorpeGlen’s VP of sales and marketing showed off one of these tools in a ‘Webinar’ broadcast to the ISS community on 13 May. He used as an example the data from ‘a mobile network we have access to’ – since he chose not to obscure the numbers we know it’s Indonesia-based – and explained that calls from the entire network of 50 million subscribers had been processed, over a period of two weeks, to produce a database of eight billion or so ‘events’. Everyone on a network, he said, is part of a group; most groups talk to other groups, creating a spider’s web of interactions. Of the 50 million subscribers ThorpeGlen processed, 48 million effectively belonged to ‘one large group’: they called one another, or their friends called friends of their friends; this set of people was dismissed. A further 400,000 subscriptions could be attributed to a few large ‘nodes’, with numbers belonging to call centres, shops and information services. The remaining groups ranged in size from two to 142 subscribers. Members of these groups only ever called each other – clear evidence of antisocial behaviour – and, in one extreme case, a group was identified in which all the subscribers only ever called a single number at the centre of the web. This section of the ThorpeGlen presentation ended with one word: ‘WHY??’

I’m hugely ambivalent about this sort of power. The bona fides of all telecoms companies in Sri Lanka, and many other countries with regimes more interested in control and containment than democracy, are already suspect. Governments themselves often conveniently confuse anti-terrorism and the post 9/11 war on terror with legitimate dissent on human rights abuses. Together, the worst of telcos and illiberal regimes have a degree of control over movements and communications that, given our dependence on the web, Internet and mobile communications, is unprecendented in human history. I have always thought that Burma was exceedingly foolish to cut off all communications during and in response to the Saffron Revolution. A more sophisticated regime would have simply tracked all the communications, taking a page from China, and then targetted nodes (indviduals and groups) who were responsible for most of the information generation.

ThorpeGlen’s technology makes this easy to do and I doubt very much that they have ethical guidelines (or frankly even a remote interest in human rights) that will prevent them from selling their product to regimes not known for their support of democracy. The capabilities of the system are astounding – able to track multiple SIMs, handsets and devices and remind me of the Semantic Navigator that I toyed around with in the early days of implementing Groove Virtual Office to support the One Text process in Sri Lanka.

Identifying and profiling targets. Click for larger image.
Identifying and profiling targets. Click for larger image.

On the other hand, this technology is here and being further developed. There’s no wishing it away and governments are openly talking about ways to break even themost secure mobile communications channels. Commercial variants are indubitably going to be useful in humanitarian aid and peace related work – to help with location and situational awareness on the ground and complement other technologies such as mobile video, offering real time, immersive updates from the field with little or no user interaction.

A committed interest in combatting terrorism and creating better systems to manage disaster aid work makes it difficult to not get animated by and support these technologies. On the other hand, I am worried about the capabilities of these systems used by governments to hunt what becomes an evolving definition of terrorists and terrorism which soon includes those like myself who are openly critical of the gross abuse of human rights and media freedom by a regime in Sri Lanka hell-bent on a total war to the detriment of democracy.

Many of us are already under surveillance. It’s difficult from where I am to be optimistic about this sort of technology used more as a tool to promote democracy over self-serving wars against terrorism, but I take this as a challenge for all peacebuilders who increasingly use ICTs. Technology after all, is and was never neutral. Our challenge is to use what we have access to pursue our goals, which are strangely yet inextricably entwined with those of the ISS industry.

The future of mobile applications and some other ideas

The Google Android Developers Blog lists the top 50 applications submitted to Round 1 of its developer’s challenge. It’s a damn impressive list. I was alerted to this from Appropriate IT’s excellent post on it, which I fully endorse. 

A PDF slideshow of all the apps, with screenshots and mock-ups, is available here

However, as Appropriate IT notes although the developer challenge suggested humanitarian work as a potential field to develop apps for, none feature in Round 1. However, there are potential uses for some of these apps in peacebuilding, governance and humanitarian aid (e.g. scanning barcodes through mobiles as a means of population tracking, just in time IDP registration and refugee camp logistics).

My biggest concern is into the future with the birth of a plethora of mobile apps that are not interoperable, leading to information silos and further fragmentation of action in response to, inter alia, crises, disasters and peace processes. While emergent mobiles apps can and often do communicate via web services, there isn’t yet a data standard say for the exchange of presence information, or disseminating vital information in the cloud to other mobile apps (e.g. needs in a particular areas matched with resources in another at a time of a disaster). 

There is also a proclivity to be shackled by a PC mindset in the development of most of these mobile apps. The point of a mobile phone is precisely that – it isn’t fixed to a location. Apps need to leverage far more location and presence awareness (enabled by most mobile networks and GPS functionality) and communicate with each other based on network, proximity or other settings (e.g. for users to “tag” their mobiles with meta-information related to work / interests /needs / challenges / deployment / agency / office / responsibilities / health / sex et al enabling proximity alerts and automatic mobile to mobile information sharing whenever individuals with shared interests, common goals are within certain radius. More interesting would be AI algorithms that alert individuals of potential solutions to a challenge, alerting / pairing for example the need for child protection in an IDP camp and the presence of a UNICEF aid worker within 1km of the camp).

Sadly I haven’t also seen, yet, an Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) application. As Appropriate IT states

In many ways, cell phones have become the sole communication and connectivity device for millions in the developing world. Therefore, it is imperative that we move away from thinking of a cell phone as another connected computer and treat it as a totally new device with its own specificities and peculiarities.”

This is precisely what I’ve been saying for years and proposing to the ODR practitioners and system builders and its great to recognise that others.

Further, instead of perennially balking at the smaller screens, lower resolutions and inferior processing power when compared to PCs, we need to start looking at them as devices of empowerment that are already in the hands of more people than PCs are and ever will be (see Some thoughts on mobile phones and the digital divide).

Some thoughts on mobile phones and the digital divide

Nokia 1100. The best selling phone in the world. Image courtesy Wikipedia.    




Nokia 1100. The best selling phone in the world. Image courtesy Wikipedia.


Ken Banks has a super article up on PC World on using mobile phones to address the digital divide. In it Ken points to two aspects of mobile phones and their usage that not everyone even in developing countries quite understands. 

“They can make and receive calls, they have an address book, they can send and receive SMS, and the built-in alarm is very popular.”

“with many of the low-end handsets found in the markets and shops in developing countries, has no browser of any kind and doesn’t support GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) or any other form of data transmission. Accessing the Internet? Dream on.”

I don’t know anything about sub-saharan Africa, but in Sri Lanka, wireless internet access footprints are expanding year after year. Today it is possible to get 3G coverage in many urban areas and WiMax coverage even further out afield. GPRS coverage almost blankets most of the areas in Sri Lanka. Areas that don’t have any of this will only get smaller. Even in 2003, when I was often on the A9 to Jaffna, I used to check my email via my old and trusted Nokia 3410 on the road. Today, I can tether my mobile to my laptop and access the net at speeds close to the “broadband” I get from my ADSL at home.

However, the question is whether those at the Bottom of the Pyramid access the internet through their mobiles or have any interest in doing so. I would think not. At least, not yet. While voice telephony and SMS usage is high, the potential of (new) mobile and devices that can produce, access and disseminate web based content will take years to take root even in the areas that are covered with high-speed internet mobile access.

But is this really a problem? I note in a recent paper on mobile phones and governance that,

From Zimbabwe and Kenya to China and Kuwait , from electoral processes and women’s suffrage to the voicing dissent against oppression, mobiles are already revolutionising our approach to and understanding of public participation in governance. Mobiles have already demonstrated in many countries around the world that in the hands of a vibrant civil society they are powerful tools that hold government and public institutions accountable, their interactions transparent and their transactions efficient. Conversations inspired, produced, stored and disseminated through mobiles are rapidly changing the manner in which we imagine the State, interact with government and participate in the mechanisms and institutions of democratic governance.

I endorse Ken’s suggestion for the development of a subsidized, fully Internet-ready handset for developing markets, but his own work with FrontlineSMS suggests that for the millions who use the phones we discarded years ago at the bottom of the pyramid, replacing handsets is not really a priority even if they are subsidised. Value has to be seen and realised in being able to access mobile content via mobiles, and that value today is simply not there for most consumers particularly at the bottom of the pyramid. I submit that it will also not automatically come with a new device / handset.

Part of this value has to be created by imagining governance that is responsive through mobiles. Citizens who feel that using the web on their mobiles to access information, participate in local government, produce information for the benefit of their local community and use it as a device in much the same way we approach social networking (such as Facebook on PCs and our high-end handsets) may create value and buy-in to use web enabled mobiles and bear the total cost of ownership over time, which will include data charges. 

Telcos can play a role. Today, many data plans and much of the content that leverages high speed mobile internet are those linked to entertainment. There is ZERO emphasis on governance. The emphasis on the market and resulting applications help (agrarian) producers at the local level get a better deal, but doesn’t capture the interest of others at the grassroots. And without sufficient interest and subsequent benefit to self and community, there’s no motive to upgrade from the likes of the Nokia 1100.   

Civil society can play a role. By leveraging some of the new technologies that seamlessly merge the web on the PC and the web on the mobile to create social networks, it’s possible to create virtual communities that produce and exchange information on shared interests, goals and challenges. 

Telemedicine can also play a role as an incentive for mobile internet. 

The issue of cost that Ken points to is important. The mobile web has to work differently to the web on the PC. The devices don’t lend themselves to laborious Google searches. There is limited screen space to display information. There are issues of language, with some scripts such as Sinhala requiring a larger font size (and therefore more screen space or less information on smaller screens) than English / Romanic fonts. There are issues of literacy to boot.

I have always though of mobiles empowering communities as an eco-system of complementary technologies. The lowest common denominator and the most useful to date is SMS. Add to this vernacular IVR services (which requires limited literacy) and wholly SMS driven information retrieval (such as that which many banks have on mobiles in Sri Lanka with details of credit card special deals and offers) and you have a range of technologies that aren’t impeded by the lack of internet accessibility on existing mobile handsets in the hands of the majority of consumers.

Ken’s full sentence in one of the excerpts above is as follows,

The problem is that the Nokia 1100, as with many of the low-end handsets found in the markets and shops in developing countries, has no browser of any kind and doesn’t support GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) or any other form of data transmission.

Emphasis mine.

It’s a problem yes if you see it as providing everyone with web access.

However, the point I wish to make is that the internet isn’t just about the web or accessing it over a mobile web browser. SMS and IVR can hook into real time, live data sources on the internet (e.g. at its simplest, think of weather forecasting on-demand over voice or SMS for fisherfolk). Mobiles with just SMS can provide information to the web (think Twitter’esque services) that can in turn feed back into mobiles via SMS (think the erstwhile Rasasa). Think subsidised numbers that IDPs can call to access and listen to radio programmes with vital information. Think Government Information services that use IVR, are free calls, that enable all consumers to access information otherwise only available through the web. Think of cybercafes as stations to access printed documentation that is printed on demand through innovative SMS services.

Using Ken’s FrontlineSMS and a range of other tools and services, such as Sahana’s SMS modules, I will over the next three years work on some of these areas in Sri Lanka.

1.4 billion people access the Internet today – ODR providers need to wake up to mobiles

A new report finds a quarter of the world’s population accessing the Internet in 2008.  IDC’s Digital Marketplace Model and Forecast estimates that 1.4 billion users of the Internet is set to jump to 1.9 billion over the next four years, bringing internet access to roughly 30 per cent of the world’s population.

“The internet will have added its second billion users over a span of about eight years, a testament to its universal appeal and its availability,” said John Gantz, chief research officer at IDC. “These trends will accelerate as the number of mobile users continues to soar and the internet becomes truly ubiquitous.”

Net-enabled mobile devices will help drive the global online trend, surpassing the desktop PC as the primary means of accessing the internet by 2012, according to the report.

Net-enabled mobile devices will help drive the global online trend, surpassing the desktop PC as the primary means of accessing the internet by 2012, according to the report.

Emphasis mine.

Two years ago, in response to a report that said that this figure was 694 million, I said that those in the developing world and especially in countries such as China access the Internet through Cybercafes and mobile phones. It’s great that market research agencies have finally caught up with what I’ve been observing and writing on for years. 

Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) is a field that needs to wake up and leverage this growth in non-PC internet and web access. Currently, there is only one application I know of that runs on a mobile device (the iPhone and even it is still in beta) and only one example from the Philippines that has SMS as an integral part of its operations. As I noted in Victoria this year at the 2008 ODR Forum, the iPhone alone has all by itself revolutionised the mobile web use and access in the US, a country not known for its use of mobile phones for anything other than voice calls. 

With the increasing global usage of the Internet and web, increasingly through mobile devices / phones, the business model for mobile ODR technology provisioning is strong. In 2004 I was openly challenged by an ODR service provider based in the UK for even believing that mobiles would make any appreciable impact on ODR. 

Today, the fact that there isn’t any enterprise level ODR solution that leverages mobiles / mobile devices is not just a great pity. 

It’s daft.

Democratic governance and mobile phones

“Don’t get grandma hear it” was what US soldier Stephen Philips was reported in the Newsweek as saying when his cell phone redialled home during a fire-fight in Afghanistan and broadcast the chaos into his parent’s answering machine . Though it would have been traumatic for the parents of Stephen Philips, yet this is an example of how mobile phones connect us all to far-flung yet vital realities. From Zimbabwe and Kenya to China and Kuwait , from electoral processes and women’s suffrage to the voicing dissent against oppression, mobiles are already revolutionising our approach to and understanding of public participation in governance. Mobiles have already demonstrated in many countries around the world that in the hands of a vibrant civil society they are powerful tools that hold government and public institutions accountable, their interactions transparent and their transactions efficient. Conversations inspired, produced, stored and disseminated through mobiles are rapidly changing the manner in which we imagine the State, interact with government and participate in the mechanisms and institutions of democratic governance.

Read my full paper here

UPDATE – 13th June 2008

This essay is published in the i4D magazine June 2008 issue. Download and read the PDF as it appears in print and online here.

ICTs in state-building

An excellent paper by Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart who I met during Strong Angel III titled Writing The History Of The Future: Securing Stability through Peace Agreements suggests that ICTs could play a central role in state building, but too often don’t. 

“Enormous scope exists to examine the possibilities for rethinking electoral processes, voter registration, census preparation and citizen database preparation in light of modern technology, to enable more frequent but transparent elections at a fraction of the cost at the same time as build an information base for governance.”

Ashraf and Clare are heading The Institute for State Effectiveness and I hope they look more closely at the relationships engendered by mobile phones between peoples (not all of whom may be citizens) and the State as it is constituted and imagined today. As I have suggested earlier and other writers have also confirmed, mobile phones are changing old assumptions on human security, sustainable development and citizen empowerment.

No think tank that attempts to envision the future of the State can afford to ignore their role and encourage further their fullest integration into democratic polity and society.